With a little help, the San Diego Chargers could win their fifth straight AFC West Division title this season. But first they need to win.
The Chargers will be looking to take advantage of a team in full- collapse mode when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
The West has become the property of San Diego in recent years as the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos have each treated their fans to continuous seasons of losing. But things have turned around in Kansas City and even Oakland this season, making the Chargers’ slow start something that might keep them out of the playoffs this time around.
Currently trailing the Chiefs by a game in the division and two back of the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens in the wild card race, San Diego’s best shot is to win out and hope Kansas City falters either this week against Tennessee or in the season finale against the Raiders.
Both of those games are at home for the Chiefs, who have been strong historically at home in the final month of the season.
The Chargers (8-6) dug a hole early this season, dropping five of their first seven games despite leading the league in offense and defense. Breakdowns in the red zone and on special teams were the cause of most of those setbacks, and only the superb play of Philip Rivers kept them in the games.
Things have turned around since Week 8, as San Diego has won seven of the last eight to pull back into contention.
Rivers has been doing it all season without his full complement of receivers and will again be without tight end Antonio Gates on Sunday due to a foot injury. Vincent Jackson is back, however, and Rivers got reacquainted with his former top wide receiver to the tune of three touchdowns last week in a 34-7 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers.
San Diego has won its last two games by a combined 65-7.
Help this week will come from the laughable Bengals (3-11), who somehow managed to snap a 10-game losing streak last week despite losing Terrell Owens to a season-ending knee injury.
Owens is out and Chad Ochocinco is dealing with an ankle injury, making Cedric Benson a bigger focal point for the offense this week. Cincinnati leaned on Benson against the Cleveland Browns last week and was rewarded with 150 yards and a touchdown in a 19-17 victory.
Perhaps if the Bengals had gone to the running game a little more this season instead of giving in to the pass and watching Carson Palmer toss 18 interceptions, they would be in better shape right now.
This Cincinnati team could look very different next season with Owens on the way out and another disappointing season prompting cries for change from the fans.